Museums: The only thing lacking is a lady: Sudbury, the Suffolk town where Gainsborough grew up, is rightly proud of him. Michael Leapman visits the artist's old house

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ASK anyone to name an East Anglian painter and nine out of ten will plump for John Constable. Thomas Gainsborough was just as eminent but his connection with the region is less well known, because his most famous works depict society ladies rather than Suffolk and Essex landscapes.

Yet Sudbury, the Suffolk town where Gainsborough grew up, is rightly proud of him. His statue overlooks its marketplace, and the house where he was born in 1727 - in what is now called Gainsborough Street - contains an expanding and increasingly interesting collection of his work. It is believed to be the only significant gallery devoted to a British artist that is accommodated in the house of his birth.

It opened in 1961, but growth has been slow due to a shortage of funds for acquisitions and restoring the house - parts of it some 600 years old. Last summer, however, it made its most expensive purchase when, in a joint bid with the Tate Gallery, more than a million pounds was spent on Portrait of Peter Darnal Mullman, Charles Crokatt and William Keable, a fine early group picture of about 1750.

It was the first time that an independent gallery and a national museum had made a co-operative purchase. The canvas is to be shared: it will be in Sudbury until the spring, but will spend most of this year in London before returning to Gainsborough's House for two years.

It was the gallery's second important purchase of 1993. The first was what Hugh Belsey, the gallery's curator and a Gainsborough scholar describes as 'the artist's most ambitious drawing', his Peasants Going to Market (1770-74), which the museum bought for pounds 352,000. The previous year it had acquired for pounds 67,500 A Portrait of Harriet, Viscountess Tracy, from 1763.

Other notable works include what is thought to be Gainsborough's only surviving sculpture, a small shire horse. He used it as a model for horses in a number of his landscapes - less well known than his portraits, but a genre in which he excelled. One of his finest, A Wooded Landscape with Cattle by a Pool, is in the collection.

His earliest known portrait, of an unknown boy and girl, was cut into sections many years ago in unknown circumstances - presumably to fit smaller frames - but the two pieces that survive are shown side by side. There is also A Portrait of the Countess of Dartmouth, chiefly remarkable for the correspondence that accompanies it. Responding to a complaint by the Earl that his wife was not dressed elaborately enough in the picture, Gainsborough witheringly deplored the taste for clothing sitters according to the latest fad, making them look ridiculous when the fashion changed.

An etching, Peasant Reading a Tombstone, is another highlight. There are also some of the artist's possessions and furniture, along with works by his nephew Gainsborough Dupont and contemporaries such as Francis Hayman, who influenced Gainsborough's development when they worked together on paintings for the supper boxes at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in London.

Gainsborough lived in the house until he was 13, when he went to London to study painting. He married in 1746 and three years later returned to Sudbury, where his second and third daughters were baptized, the first having died in infancy. In 1752 they moved to Ipswich, then to Bath and back to London's Pall Mall, with a country house at Richmond. He died in 1788, aged 61.

The Sudbury house today doubles as a study centre for Gainsborough's works, backed by a library. Rooms are also devoted to changing exhibitions of work by contemporary artists and craftspeople. Sculpture is shown in the garden and a former coach house has been converted into a print workshop.

What the permanent collection most notably lacks, as Mr Belsey admits, is a Gainsborough lady - the type of large, full-length female portrait on which the artist's reputation partly rests. 'We'd love one,' he says. 'The trouble is that there are only a few left in this country.' It is also a drawback that, with its low medieval ceilings, the house is not an ideal setting for tall paintings.

The main problem, however, is the perennial one - money. Every time it wants to make a purchase, like any other gallery, it has to seek help from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the National Art Collections Fund and other donors. Although it does have money earmarked for contributing to such acquisitions, there is a shortage of funds that it can use to meet the pounds 135,000 annual cost of running the house. Last year, says Mr Belsey, he had virtually no secretarial help.

Grants from Suffolk County Council (pounds 41,000) and Eastern Arts (pounds 25,000) cover approximately half that expenditure. Admission charges take care of some of the shortfall. Last year there were 19,000 visitors - a respectable 60 a day - most of them paying the full adult admission fee of pounds 2, soon to increase to pounds 2.50. An appeal has been launched with the aim of raising an endowment of pounds 250,000 to expand the museum's activities. More visitors would be welcome, says Mr Belsey, but it is not a simple task to attract them.

Sudbury may no longer deserve Daniel Defoe's description of it in 1722: 'There is nothing for which this town is remarkable except for being very populous and very poor.' Yet although today it is neither populous nor poor, boasting some grand Georgian buildings and two good medieval churches, it is a longish day's excursion from London and is not directly on the route to any major tourist destination. All the same, if the quality of the collection can continue to be upgraded, it will surely appeal to increasing numbers of visitors, and not just to dedicated art lovers.

Gainsborough's House, 46 Gainsborough St, Sudbury, Suffolk CO10 6EU (0787 372958). Open Tue-Sat 10am-4pm, Sundays and Bank Holidays 2-4pm (5pm after Easter)

(Photograph omitted)